Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Demonic Males"

Do humans produce wars the way spiders produce webs? What I'm wondering, picking up from my previous blog, is whether war is inevitable--written into the dynamics of who we are--or is it, as my friend Cliff suggests, merely a bad choice, repeated again and again. And, if it is a choice, can we just decide not to go there by learning to "love our enemies" instead?

According to military documents recently reviewed by the Associated Press, it seems we have no fresh troop units at this point to send to Iraq. After six years of fruitless combat, the army has just about exhausted its fighting force. "The demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," Army chief of staff General George Casey said last week. "If the demands don't go down over time, it will be increasingly difficult for us to provide the trained and ready forces for other missions."

At the very least, to a rational person, this would seem to suggest the parameters for an obvious choice. However, it seems that Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman are busy hatching out ways to provoke a further war--with Iran. Like I've said, we don't give up our cherished goals lightly. Some obsessions are not harmless. "There is a tendency to make a plan and then worship the plan, that 'memory of the possible future,' " writes Laurence Gonzales in "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why." "But there is also a tendency to think that simply putting forth more and more effort, we can overcome friction...And as history shows, the harder we try, the more complex our plan for reducing friction, the worse things get."

Have our leaders, even with all the clear warnings out there, really failed to understand that our invasion of Iraq has brought us nothing except more recruits for the other side? Or is something else driving them?

Writing about war, especially this one, is very, very depressing. As my friend James Hillman, who has done it in spades, having published his book "A Terrible Love of War" in 2005, puts it: "The writer comes out...a casualty, and the reader too, or at least all shook up...To write of war is to reach as close as possible to that which can't be lived." Writing that book, he once told me, nearly killed him. I begin to see why.

So many of us choose avoidance for just that reason. We prefer to ignore what is happening so we can get on with our lives and not enter into those whirlpools of chaotic feeling. But as another friend put it to me recently, "When something bad happens, do you really want your only response to be "Oh shit!"

Somehow I can imagine those very words coming out of Jane Goodall's mouth when, taken completely by surprise, after ten years of observing the peaceful coexistence of her beloved chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Africa-- creatures whom she'd always felt were "by and large rather nicer than us"--she saw them split into two rival factions and engage in horrendous war with each other. The war lasted for four years, until one group had successfully eliminated the other. It was the first recorded instance of lethal raiding among chimpanzees. Until then, most scientists believed that only humans deliberately sought out and killed members of their own species. Until the chimpanzees started killing each other, they had lived harmoniously together, side by side, in the forest.

Rather like those Hindus and Muslims in India, Hutus and Tutsies in Rwanda, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq....

So my friend Cliff wants to know: Why do YOU think people choose violence rather than nonviolence? Trying to answer this both for him and for myself has led me to a book with the intriguing title of "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence." I was drawn to it while trawling on Amazon because the blurb said the authors, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peters, attempt to answer the question of why men kill, rape, and wage war, and what we can do about it. I haven't finished the book yet, but I can come up with this much so far.

According to the authors, lethal violence is a species wide pattern characteristic of chimpanzees across Africa. Raiding chimps are marked by a gratuitous cruelty--tearing off pieces of skin, twisting limbs until they break, or drinking victims blood. In Gombe, about 30 percent of adult male chimpanzees die from agression. Humans and chimps, but no other species share a propensity for male-bonded communities and male-drive lethal intergroup raiding. The authors speculate that perhaps humans have retained an old pattern of chimpanzee-like behavior that preceded and paved the way for human war.

"We wanted to know," they write, "if humans are sufficiently consistent in the tendency for male violence to provide a meaningful comparison with chimpanzees. The answer is 'yes.' "--suggesting that human killing may indeed be rooted in our prehuman past. I have to admit, as far as I am concerned, the similarities in patterns of violence are really striking. And the image of Bush and Cheney as chimpanzees engaged in lethal raiding doesn't seem either dead wrong or dangerously misleading to me. Remember "shock and awe?"

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